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Anyone with a craving for a brand new austere black-and-white serious-themed European art film that’s not only set in the early 1960s but looks like it could have been made then will get their fix with Ida. Shooting in his native Poland for the first time, U.K.-based director Pawel Pawlikowski deals with subjects that have been examined many times—the Polish monoliths of Catholicism and communism, the fate of the Jews in World War II and the shame, guilt and silence surrounding it—but in a delicate, quiet way seen through the experience of a young woman about to take the veil. Beautifully shot in charcoal shades of gray in the boxy old Academy format that evokes the work of Danish master Carl Dreyer, this is a connoisseur’s delight, a singular work in this day and age, that will find a niche internationally among those with refined tastes.
The director of the estimable Last Resort, My Summer of Love and The Woman in the Fifth, Pawlikowski in his past work has been artful without being arty, although the latter is no doubt what any middlebrow spectator stumbling into a cinema, and beholding the 1.37 aspect ratio, would call this one. Frame by frame, Ida looks resplendently bleak, its stunning monochromes combining with the inevitable gloomy Polish weather and communist-era deprivations to create a harsh, unforgiving environment.
Narratively, however, there is considerable movement and development. Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is an open-faced, big-dark-eyed novitiate nun, probably in her late teens, on the brink of taking her vows. However, her Mother Superior insists that she first go to meet her only living relative, an aunt named Wanda (Agata Kulesza), an earthy woman pushing quickly into middle age; first met with a man in her apartment, she was clearly once quite striking, but hard living (she’s rarely without drink) and grueling experience (she’s now a judge who, as a feared public prosecutor nicknamed “Red Wanda,” sent many to their deaths a decade previously) have worn her down.
With a directness that soon reveals itself as her dominant trait, Wanda informs her niece, who was raised in an orphange, that she’s Jewish, that her real name is Ida Lebenstern and that they will travel to the isolated farmhouse of the family who hid her parents during World War II to see what they can find out.
Of course, the news is not pleasant, and the remainder of the taut, tartly rendered story intertwines the search in the forest for the site where her family is buried and for the identity of their killers along with Anna/Ida’s exposure to real life, which in this case resides in a drab local hotel where a jazz band is playing nightly. Wanda encourages Ida to have “carnal thoughts”–otherwise, “What’s the use of the vows?”–and they remain in the vicinity long enough for Ida to consider some unholy activity with the band’s sax player (Dawid Ogrodnik), who plays a pretty fair rendition of Coltrane’s “Naima” and is a perfect synthesis of all the mild hipster types who popped up in Eastern European films of the ’50s and ’60s and used pop music and other Western enthusiasms to express their non-conformism. Gorgeous blond singer Joanna Kulig is eye-and-ear-catching as the band’s vocalist.
Two devastating events climax the short film, one not so surprising, the other shocking. The very ending has something of pat feel that comes as a minor letdown after the well controlled rigor of all that’s come before, but it hardly negates the film’s compelling qualities.
Although the story is shaped by the realizations and growth of the title character, Wanda remains the most vividly drawn character. Always speaking with prosecutorial bluntness whether it be to Ida or some man who’s trying to pick her up in a bar, she comes off as a disillusioned former Party believer, one who’s forced to drive a beat-up old car but still wears a pearl necklace, an intrinsically elegant woman who would have ruled the roost in Paris but was fated to live and burn herself out quickly in Poland, a one-time somebody now committed to drinking and smoking and fornicating her way to oblivion. Kulesza plays her superbly, without too hard an edge.
The half-century-ago setting could not seem more natural and the cinematography by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski is a tonic.
Venues: Telluride, Toronto film festivals
Production: Opus Film, Phoenix Filmmakers
Cast: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik, Joanna Kulig
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Screenwriters: Pawel Pawlikowski, Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Producers: Ewa Puszczynska, Eric Abraham, Piotr Dzieciol
Directors of photography: Lukasz Zal, Ryszard Lenczewski
Production designers: Katarzyna Sobanska, Marcel Slawinski
Editor: Jarek Kaminski
Music: Kristian Selin Eidnes Andersen
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